The Wikipedia – it may be the closest thing we have to a common standard of what things mean in our culture – tells us that a demagogue is “a leader in a democracy who gains popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the common people, whipping up the passions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned deliberation. Demagogues overturn established customs of political conduct, or promise or threaten to do so.”
Notice that it’s “the common people” in this definition who are confused by prejudice and ignorance, and guided by the passions instead of “reasoned deliberation.” This reflects the classical ideal of ancient Greece and Rome – also held by most of the American Founding Fathers. The right kind of politician in this view is someone able to control his or her passions, as well as the passions of others, through the practical application of reason. The Stoics called this the cultivation of virtue, of self-control and clear headedness, of wisdom, and it lay at the heart of ancient politics.
But then, as now, not everyone was virtuous, or had the same idea of virtue. In ancient Athens and elsewhere demagogues (literally “popular leaders”) arose who appealed not to virtue but to prejudice and ignorance in order to rile up people’s passions, featuring fear-mongering, tribalism, and what we now call fake news. Demagogues are one of the hazards of democratic society.
A demagogue divides rather than unites us. This is done by taking the fluid and accidental differences among people and transforming them into fixed, absolute concepts, such as race and gender, rich and poor, smart and dumb.
To drive home the differences, the demagogue goes on the attack. He or she will mock and otherwise denigrate the enemies they’ve created, and invite others to join in what becomes a movement. Its victims find themselves insulted and redefined in hostile terms as political targets. The art of the demagogue is to inspire even more followers than enemies. It’s a vicious game.
This is suddenly an issue because we have, for the first time, a demagogue, Donald Trump, elected president of the United States.
There have been other American demagogues – Huey Long and Joe McCarthy come to mind – but never before one elected president. Before Trump’s appearance on the scene, a level of public decorum consistent with the politics of virtue was standard in this country, at least among mainstream politicians. It’s not that they didn’t lie to us (they did when they thought they had to), but in spite of that they maintained a level of public courtesy and mutual respect that sustained a sense of the American community. Truth and reason were respected, if not always followed.
Trump, by contrast, has openly disparaged truth and reason and focused on the personal humiliation of his opponents. He has made this tactic mainstream, particularly at his rallies during the campaign and since. He has made fun of a reporter’s physical disability, encouraged his supporters to beat up hecklers, disparaged the looks of male and female competitors, used ethnic slurs to denigrate his critics, and given a pass to racist demonstrators. It’s as if the locker-room talk of Tony Soprano and his henchmen at the Badda Bing migrated from HBO to the White House.
This is a sea-change in American politics. The politicians of virtue – establishment Democrats and Republicans – are freaked out by their defeat at the hands of a demagogue, as they should be. The polite discourse to which they at least gave lip service – the rhetoric of reason, science, progress, and mutual respect – now looks stilted and fake to more people. Tony Soprano’s in the White House and his uninhibited talk is releasing emotions and taboos once locked up by the limits of virtuous politics.
We’re at a dangerous moment. Civilization is based on restraint and mutual courtesy. However we choose to respond to any demagogue, if we lose our own virtue in the process by adopting his or her tactics, then he or she will have won.
Adrian Kuzminski, retired Hartwick College philosophy professor and moderator of Sustainable Otsego, resides in Fly Creek.
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Are Today’s Disputations Only
Reformation Battles Revisited?
A recent op-ed in the New York Times by a University of Virginia professor, Gerard Alexander, was provocatively titled: “Liberals, You’re not as Smart as you Think.” It may have been a shocking idea for the Times, but it’s old news for anyone who’s been listening to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or watching Fox News.
Hillary’s comment about the “deplorables” in the 2016 campaign was seized by conservatives as proof of liberal arrogance and snobbery. It helped lose her the election.
Conservatives feel that liberals have been in charge, and that it’s gone to their heads. Liberals won the culture wars – women’s rights, gay rights, multi-culturalism, globalization – and they often seem to have the background, education, and professional training needed to succeed economically in a changing world while others are struggling.
The conservative attempt to defend traditional values has largely been in resistance to disconcerting change. No wonder that many conservatives embraced Trump’s campaign rhetoric: America first, the Wall, anti-globalization, anti-elitism.
A little history might help explain how we got here. Martin Luther could be considered the first liberal. He insisted that individuals had the capacity to decide for themselves the truth of religion.
It turned out, however, that there seemed to be no way to prove that one person’s subjective belief is right, and someone else’s wrong. With no way to compromise over a common, public religion, the only option was to fight it out in a series of disastrous religious wars.
As a result, knowledge based on traditional faith was increasingly privatized, and modern Thinkers – European Enlightenment philosophers, the American Founding Fathers – began to look for alternatives to organize society.
They ended up abandoning religious faith as a social principle in favor of reason and science.
Secular ideas focused on Nature replaced religious ideas focused on God as guides to public life.
The biggest turning point was probably Darwin’s theory of evolution, which upset the Biblical account of creation. Another turning point, in the United States, was the separation of church and state. That allowed for freedom of conscience, but it also ensured that the growing public realm would remain secular.
Reason and science, however, didn’t necessarily make us better people; they haven’t solve our moral problems. Nor have they led to a more egalitarian society. Serious conflicts about values and what’s right and wrong continue.
Reason and science, and the technologies they spawn, seem stubbornly neutral, as easily adapted for good as for evil. The secular world did not, it turns out, provide a solution to the crisis of faith.
For many, the private beliefs of religion have continued to inform their values in a secular world.
But many others, abandoning religion, have been attracted by the rise of new secular faiths, or Ideologies – fascism, communism, nationalism, libertarianism, socialism, human rights, identity politics – all of which purport to tell us how to live.
These beliefs are secular insofar as they invoke Nature rather than God. They go beyond reason and science insofar as they appeal to arbitrary, non-evident absolutes like race, gender, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or the hidden hand of the marketplace.
Ideologies, like religious convictions, are matters of personal faith, not public knowledge.
Liberalism and conservatism today divide mainly over which secular faith to embrace, not which religion to adopt. Liberalism is historically identified with socialism, communism, and identity politics, while conservatism is historically identified with fascism, nationalism, and libertarianism.
Liberals tend to embrace change, and conservatives to resist it. That may be the main difference between them.
We seem to have come full circle. The new secular faiths are just as subjective as the old religious ones. They are no more evidence-based than were the old God-centered religions.
There remains, it seems, no objective way to decide that any faith – old or new, religious or secular – is right and its competitors wrong.
Just as Protestants and Catholics could not convince one another that their faith was the right one, so today’s liberals and conservatives cannot seem to convince one another that some secular values are right and others wrong. We remain divided.
It took a couple of centuries of futile warfare for the religious struggles in Europe to burn themselves out. Our divisions aren’t yet that profound, and let’s hope they never get that bad.
We are in conflict about our secular beliefs because they are matters of faith, not evidence. Perhaps taking them a little less dogmatically would be a step towards defusing conflicts over them.
Adrian Kuzminski, a retired Hartwick College philosophy professor, author and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.
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